Vancouver news: Hundreds of mental health calls diverted from police


A pilot program that embeds a mental health nurse in the Vancouver Police Department to triage 911 calls has diverted an average of nine calls a day since it launched last year, according to an update from the health authority.


Vancouver Coastal Health presented to city council Tuesday outlining the progress made on a number of initiatives meant to “reduce incidents of police-only response to mental health crises.”


Since June of 2023, nurses working in the VPD’s operational command centre have triaged 1,374 calls and resolved 743 of them – or 54 per cent – with no police involvement.


“They’ve either been diverted to a more appropriate non-police response or directly resolved by the nurse on the phone in the moment,” said Bonnie Wilson, VCH’s community operations director.


In some cases, she explained, the health-care worker can access the person’s medical records to find out if they are connected to a care team, and to send that team to visit the person in crisis. In others, the nurse has done “problem-solving, trouble-shooting and de-escalation” directly with the person on the other end of the phone.


“We’re quite excited about the early results, and we want to continue to monitor and watch. But we do think that this is providing an appropriate response to the individuals who are receiving these interventions. And it’s also allowing the police resources to be spared from having to go and respond to these calls,” Wilson said.


To be connected to the nurse, VPD Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson told council, a person in crisis or person concerned about someone else does have to call 911 and ask for police – something she, the health officials present and councillors acknowledged can be a significant barrier.


“We would love to envision a day in the future when somebody calls 911 and the answer is ‘police, fire ambulance, mental health.’ But knowing that that was a long way off – this is an alternative to that,” Fiona Wilson said.


The pilot program is one way that the health authority is spending an Urgent Mental Health and Substance Use Service Enhancements Grant of $2.8 million, which was allocated in February of last year.


Mayor Ken Sim was elected on a promise to hire 100 mental health nurses to work alongside 100 new police officers to dramatically ramp up the city’s Car 87/88 program – which dispatches these teams to respond to mental health calls.


While the 100 police officers have been hired, VCH’s proposal for how to fund the health-care piece of the response looks markedly different from what Sim promised to do on “day one” if elected.


One of the key issues or problems the health authority’s plan is meant to address, according to the presentation to council, is “insufficient options for same-day, non-police mental health crisis response.”


Scaling up the capacity of Car 87/88 is included, and in Tuesday’s update Vancouver Coastal Health said there are now two cars on the road each shift instead of one.


VCH’s plan proposes hiring 58 workers, only 14 of whom would be assigned to “police partnership services.” Thirty-two full-time positions are being hired for a new service that does not include police at all, while 12 will be hired with the goal of “strengthening Indigenous approaches across urgent mental health services.”


So far, 16.5 positions have been filled, a report to council says, while another 19.5 are under recruitment.


When it comes to progress on hiring, Bonnie Wilson told council that VCH is “not concerned about the pace at all.”


After Tuesday’s presentation, council unanimously approved the health authority’s request for another $4,670,000 in funding to continue with its phased implementation of the plan.

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